Gem of the Week: Kia*

This is the second in a sporadic series.

I met Kia last September. She had done poorly on last year’s NWEA MAP testing and had been identified, along with seven others from among our incoming freshman class, as being most in need of the Adolescent Accelerated Reading Intervention, the program I had been trained in last summer. (I described what our classroom’s version of AARI looks like in this post.)

I started pulling these eight into my classroom, one by one, to evaluate them by way of the QRI — The Qualitative Reading Inventory. This assessment requires students to first read lists of words sorted by grade level to determine their basic skills of decoding and identifying sight words — the ability to get words off the page. Some of my students read these lists fairly independently up to 6th, 7th, and 8th grade level; a few could barely make it through a second grade list. Once I got a glimpse at their ability to read, I had them read grade-level passages and answer comprehension questions — some that were easy to identify from the text, others that required inference. The majority of the eight freshmen I tested demonstrated the ability to read and comprehend at levels between the third and fifth grade; three were frustrated at first grade level or below.

How do students get to their freshmen year reading only at the first through fifth grade level? I suspect two reasons.

First, my students have grown up in Detroit Public Schools (and the charter schools, like mine, within that district) where they have received inconsistent instruction for a variety of reasons such as low attendance of both students and staff, insufficient funding and resources, and multiple out-of-school factors that impact learning such as housing and food insecurity, domestic disruption, trauma, and other realities that have grown out of centuries of systemic racism.

Second, even in the best of schools in the wealthiest of communities, the data shows COVID’s impact on learning over the last two years. Even students who had mostly face-to-face instruction over the two years of the pandemic have scored lower on standardized tests than expected. Students like mine, who had little to no schooling in the Spring of 2020 due to lack of technology and Internet connectivity, followed by one year of virtual instruction where they had to attempt to log in and focus despite many barriers including poor Internet, other siblings in the home (maybe even in the same room), family responsibilities, and the like, followed by another year of continuous transition between in-person and virtual instruction due to insufficient staffing, high COVID rates, and building issues, have been impacted much more dramatically. And, in addition to not being in school, most of my students report that they read very little or not at all between March 2020 and September 2022. That’s thirty months away from reading

It’s no wonder that when it was Kia’s turn to come into my room, she was a little nervous. She giggled a lot and apologized for missing words but did her best. I found her to be comfortable reading at the third grade level; the fourth grade passage was frustrating.

She has been in my room since September. I should say, she has sometimes been in my room since September. She’s been absent thirty-three times. And, on about a half-dozen occasions when she’s been in my class, she has fallen asleep to the degree that I have been unable to wake her. When she is present and awake, she is either fully engaged and a star participant or is having an emotional meltdown in response to a teasing comment from one of the boys in the class. She has demonstrated very little consistency, staying power, or resiliency.

So, when I pulled her out of class to retest her this past Tuesday, the first day back in the building after a two-week break, I did not have high expectations. I had already tested most of the others who had improved their reading scores by 1-3 grade levels in just one semester! I was hopeful, despite her poor attendance, that she would demonstrate the same growth.

We found a quiet corner of the building, and I asked, “Are you ready for this?”

“I’m nervous,” she replied.

“You’re going to do fine,” I said. “In fact, you’ve been telling me all semester that you don’t need this class. Here is your chance to prove it to me!”

I started her with a fifth grade passage, assuming two years’ worth of growth, and she aced it. We moved to the sixth grade passage. She missed a couple comprehension questions, but still fell in the ‘instructional’ range, so we moved on to the next passage which is labelled “upper middle school”. Again, she missed only a couple questions on a dense passage about the life cycle of stars, so we moved to a high school level passage. The text was two single-spaced pages with illustrations describing the functions of DNA and RNA. It took her a while to respond to the questions, as she had permission, according to QRI instructions, to go back to the text and find the answers, but she found them — enough to fall in the “instructional” range once again.

As I watched her read and then search for answers — her determination to prove that she could do this — I was getting choked up. The others had tried hard, too, but she was clearly on a different level.

When she finished, I said, “Kia, how do you feel?”

“I feel good!”

“Do you know what level you started at in September?”

“No.”

“You were comfortable at third grade level. Fourth grade level was frustrating.”

“Oh my God!” she said, covering her face in embarrassment.

“Be kind to yourself!” I explained. “We were just coming back after COVID! It was a very difficult time! How much did you read during COVID?”

“Nothing,” she said with a sheepish grin on her face.

“Right! Do you know you just read a complex biology text at the high school level?” I could barely get the words out because my throat was tightening.

“I did?”

“You understood all that stuff about cells and DNA and replication! Everybody can’t do that!”

She looked at me, locking eyes.

“Kia, you could be a nurse!”

“That’s what I want to be!” she smiled broadly.

“You can! You are very bright!”

She started crying, too. We hugged. I passed her a tissue, then I pulled myself together.

“Listen, Kia, I’m gonna be real with you. You have the stuff it takes to be a nurse, but you aren’t going to get there unless something changes. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“I gotta come to school.”

“Yes, you’ve got to come to school. If you want to get into a nursing program, you need As and Bs from now on, and you have the ability to do that.”

We talked a little bit longer about how I was going to be after her, checking in on her, even after she has left my class when the semester ends in two weeks. Then we walked through the halls telling administrators and teachers about what she had accomplished — we needed to celebrate.

Everyone applauded her, hugged her, congratulated her — she was beaming.

The next day Kia showed up in my room before school asking to borrow a laptop. She’d lost her charger and hers was dead — had been dead for weeks. I loaned her my laptop, and said, “Here’s a charger. You can keep it.”

“Thank you! Now I can get caught up at home!”

She came to my class later that day, sat up straight, answered questions, and smiled broadly.

She dropped by my room the next day to say, “I’m making up all my missing work, Mrs. Rathje, and I’m staying awake in all my classes.”

“Amazing, Kia! Keep going!”

Do I think that Kia’s ability to read improved nine — 9! — grade levels in one semester? No. However, I think that some basic skills that had gone dormant during COVID were re-engaged. I believe Kia’s brain, like many others I see every day, had learned to “sleep” during the trauma and disruption of COVID, and needed to be woken up.

AARI for an hour a day five days a week, despite her absences, was enough to wake her up, and realizing her potential was the cup of coffee that put her in motion.

I tested Kia on Tuesday, and she was still going strong on Friday. I suspect her momentum will fluctuate. She’ll have hard days, she’ll get discouraged, and she’ll be tempted to go back to sleep, if just to get some relief.

She’s gonna need all kinds of encouragement to build the stamina she’ll need to make it all the way to a nursing degree, because all of the obstacles didn’t magically go away. She’s still going to have to get herself up every morning. She’s still going to have to show up. She’s going to have to learn to tune out the voices of adolescent boys who like to get a reaction out of her. She’s going to have to overcome a lot more than what I see on the surface — whatever is going on at home that allowed her to miss thirty-three days of school, whatever reason there is for the fact that she needs glasses and hasn’t had then for the entire first semester, whatever has happened in her life that makes her so tender to break down so easily from everyday jabs of a few adolescent boys.

She’ll leave my class at the end of this semester, but our school is small, and I will make an effort to see her most days — to engage with her and to wave the cup of coffee under her nose, to remind her of the future that is possible for her.

But mostly it’s going to be up to her to do the next hard thing day after day after day. It’s gonna get tiring. And lonely. And the odds are against her.

But with some determination and a few miracles, she just might make it.

May God make her path straight and may He raise up a great cloud of witnesses to cheer her on her way.

I’m happy to be one among the crowd shouting “Keep going! You’re almost there!”

*Name changed for confidentiality.

A String of Miracles

We purchased the gifts and wrapped them. We planned menus, purchased loads and loads of food, and baked ourselves silly. We cleaned the house and made all the beds, and then we waited.

As we sat on the coach, staring at Netflix, the texts started to come in.

“We’re checked in at the hotel! See you in the morning!”

“Our flight just landed!”

“We should be there in an hour!”

And then our family started rolling in — from Ohio, from Massachusetts, from Missouri.

We hugged, we laughed, and we ate.

We puzzled; we played games. We did crafts, watched movies, and traveled to celebrate with even more family.

It sounds like what most families do over the holidays, but I suppose many families, like ours, can get together like this only because of a string of miracles — only because of choosing forgiveness, of going to therapy, and of healing and time and the stubborn belief that things get better.

Didn’t you, too, have the holiday where everyone was yelling at each another?

And the one where no one spoke a word?

And the one where everyone walked out of church sobbing?

And the one where some decided they just. couldn’t. do it — not this year.

And then there was the covid year (or years — who remembers?) where we packed presents into flat rate boxes and stood in line for hours at the post office, hoping our parcels would get there before Easter. The year (or was it two?) where we sat in Zoom rooms with family members, some of us trying not to hog the air time, others trying to endure those who were hogging the air time.

It seems after all those difficult years we might have stopped believing that we could once again be all in one space, laughing, eating, agreeing on what to watch, moving upstairs to open the gifts, and leaning together over a puzzle, snacking on chips and rock candy and cookies.

But we didn’t stop believing — really — did we?

Didn’t we keep hoping for the day when all the therapy would pay off? Didn’t we long for the moment when we all laughed at the same joke, all smiled at the same memory, all managed to load ourselves and our gifts and bags full of food into cars only to discover most of the way there that we had left the main dish warming in the oven and no one lost their shit but we rebounded easily, picking up take out on the way?

Didn’t we imagine it could happen? Didn’t we dream it?

And so I’m sitting here pinching myself, trying to believe that it actually happened. And someone in the Christmas 2022 group chat sends a text checking on someone else who left the festivities feeling subpar. Another sends a pic of a present that broke upon opening, and everyone laughs. More pics are shared, more laughter, and then a commitment to what we will do next year.

They want to do it again next year.

I need a moment to just take that in.

Every family relationship doesn’t get this gift, does it? We don’t all get the moments we prayed for.

Don’t we all have at least one relationship where we do all the initiating? where tender topics are avoided? where our hearts ache with disappointment at the end of each phone call? where we can’t shake the feeling of being unwanted?

In fact, I was sitting in therapy the very day that the last of our family left, on the come down, for sure, and all I managed was, “our Christmas was amazing, but this one relationship over here still sucks and that’s all I can think about.”

And over the hour of belaboring the one less-than-stellar relationship I have spent most of my life bemoaning, my therapist offered suggestions, role-playing, expectation-setting, and the like, and near the end of the session, I began to realize that the beauty we experienced with our family at Christmas didn’t come without the hard work of many — of all of us, really.

I can’t expect this other relationship to magically transform on its own. If I want something different, I’ll need to return — to my knees, to forgiveness, to therapy, to the stubborn belief that things can get better.

It’s risky — even just the hoping for change — because happy endings or even happy moments are not guaranteed. I might experience disappointment — again.

But I might risk hoping, and a series of miracles might just happen. We might laugh at the same joke or smile at the same memory. We might play a game together or lean toward each other over a puzzle. We might agree on a movie. We might enjoy a meal.

And it might be amazing.

Witnessing the string of miracles that led to an amazing Christmas has me thinking that I just might risk hoping again.

[He] is able to do far more than we would ever dare to ask or even dream of”

Ephesians 3:20

A Week’s Journey

Click the arrow to listen

I clicked ‘publish’ on last week’s blog, jumped in my vehicle, and drove to school. By the time I got there I had a text message, “I want to feed your students!”

At the end of last week’s post about my developing freshman readers, I had mentioned that they eat a ton and had invited my readers to a) support any teachers they know with gifts of snacks, or to b) help me feed mine. A close friend and fellow educator was the first to raise her hand and say, “pick me, pick me!” It’s such an encouragement to me when any of you reach out — you read my blog, you ask me about my students, you send cash for feminine supplies, or you buy snacks, and I feel encouraged to keep going.

Within a couple of hours, two retired teachers (who taught some of my children!) reached out with a very generous gift of support and another educator who got connected to my blog through a mutual friend, emailed to say “snacks are on the way!”

Monday night the Amazon trucks started arriving. By Tuesday morning, I had a large tote to carry in to school full of protein bars, fruit snacks, and candy,

Why do I need so many snacks? Because I have 80 students of my own who come into my class most days and many more who have become aware that “Mrs. Rathje probably has something.” Students come to me to borrow chargers, to get a bandaid, or to ask for feminine supplies, deodorant, or something to eat. Our school provides breakfast and lunch to all of our students, but breakfast often looks like a juice box, a granola bar, and an apple — hardly enough to hold a teenager until lunch time. Lunch might be pizza, “walking tacos” (taco fixings piled inside a snack-sized bag of Doritos), or more standard school lunch fare like chicken with mashed potatoes, all of which sound decent, but each of these arrives in large insulated boxes which cafeteria workers open up before distributing the food through a window in the gym where the teeming masses fight for a place in line. It’s loud and chaotic. You get one choice, and if you don’t like that, you are, as they say, out of luck. Many kids do eat what is provided, but some check out in a “quiet” corner, where they mind their own business and scroll on their phones.

Whether they’ve eaten or not, teenagers are always persistently hungry.

I don’t give snacks every day, but students know that if they missed breakfast, if they are going straight to work after school, or if they are just plain hungry, they can ask, and I will have something.

So, I hauled snacks into school Tuesday morning, and Tuesday afternoon, instead of going back home, I drove north for a two-day conference. The Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) was having its annual conference at a casino in Mt. Pleasant, MI, and I had received a scholarship to attend on behalf of my school and the Michigan Teacher Leader Collaborative (MTLC), of which I am currently a fellow.

When the conference started Tuesday morning, I learned about state funding for students like mine that has been made available in the wake of Covid and a disengagement in postsecondary enrollment. We’re talking millions of dollars! As the director of MCAN said, we have right now “unprecedented funding for unprecedented impact.”

Over lunch, I learned about LA Room and Board an organization that provides housing for the 1 out of 5 community college students in Los Angeles who are homeless.

The next day, I learned about the Digital Equity Act, a bi-partisan $2.75 billion initiative that provides funding for building out Internet infrastructure, providing devices, and increasing digital literacy so that “everyone – no matter where they live – can fully participate in our society, democracy, and economy,” and that means college access, job preparation, and, ultimately, increased financial freedom.

I was surrounded, for two days, by individuals who were aware of and leveraging resources that have the potential to transform the lives of my students and others like them. In the midst of this, I found myself at a table with three complete strangers. I was catching up on notes and eating my meal, when one of the others introduced himself. I told him I was a high school teacher in Detroit and then asked him what he did. He said said he was a gifts manager at a major agency in Detroit; his main project is funding the post-secondary pursuits of Detroit students.

I perked up. “Do you have a card?”

He handed me one.

I made it my job for the next few minutes to invite him to speak at our career day and to “sell” him on the mission of our school. Whenever I shared a fact or detail about the lived experiences of my students, he replied, shaking his head, “I already know. I already know.”

We parted ways to go to separate sectionals, but I found him again at lunch, and continued our conversation, sharing specific stories like the one about the brother (a freshman) and his sister (a senior) at my school who have dealt with homelessness and are now trying to navigate into more permanent living situations. I shared that one obstacle they’ve had is finding transportation to school since their new address is no longer on our bus line. I shared, “I do a little grass roots philanthropy, enlisting a small group of friends who help me out from time to time. One set of friends right now is financing Lyft and Uber rides for these two while we figure out a longer term solution. Their gifts are small compared to what you are looking at….”

He interrupted me and said, “but they add up to big wins.”

They do! I cant tell you the impact it has had on my relationship with these two students and the senior’s boyfriend, who is currently arranging all the rides because the siblings do not currently have a cell phone. The boyfriend, who had previously not wanted to engage in my class — who would barely speak to me — is now greeting me in the hallway, texting me on the weekend, and leaning in a little harder to academics. The freshman is trying to be just a little less squirrel-y (bless his heart), and his sister is growing up before my eyes, advocating for herself, navigating difficult waters, and trying to emancipate herself so that she can provide a space for her and her brother until he, too, is of an age to do for himself.

I was sharing this with my new friend, when he said, “Can you imagine what it would look like if my organization set up a fund to cover expenses like these?”

“I can!” I said, and I promised to email him the next day.

I returned home Thursday night to find an enormous pile of Amazon deliveries waiting for me — trail mix, more candy, beef jerky, cheese and cracker packs, an enormous box of potato chips, feminine supplies, deodorant, and on, and on, and on.

Big wins for my students, for sure.

Saturday, I participated in a small virtual conference put on by the MTLC. One of the speakers, Silver Moore, said she likes to picture each of her students as a hero on the hero’s journey, traversing through challenges, receiving supernatural aid and assistance from mortal helpers, on their way to transformation. She said, that “if indeed they are heroes on their journeys, they need us to tell them they are amazing.”

And I thought, “they really do!” They need my little group of friends to spoil them with snacks and Uber rides for their journey. They need the state of Michigan to provide “unprecedented funds” to overcome their challenges. They need the federal government to fund access to the technology that will help them navigate their paths, and they need philanthropic agencies to commit their resources in a way that signifies that they are truly heroes.

This is a message that is unfamiliar for students like mine. They don’t often hear that they are amazing. Instead they hear through both words and actions that they are simultaneously too much and not enough, that they are loud, wrong, and unworthy of a hero’s life.

So this week, I’m gonna haul a bunch of snacks into my room to celebrate my amazing students who are on various points of their hero’s journey. I’m going to tell them they are amazing, and I’m going to let them know that you are cheering them on.

We are the ‘great cloud of witnesses’ that might enable them to ‘run with perseverance the race that is set before [them]’.

Doing Fine

Click the arrow to listen.

Last spring, my supervisor asked me to take on the role of Reading Interventionist at our school. I’d been pointing out students’ low reading levels since the minute I walked into the building, so I knew there was a need.

She said I would continue with my main responsibility, teaching senior English — building literacy skills by way of career and college exploration. I would also continue to sit on the Leadership Team as the Master Teacher, offering support to other teachers, attending meetings, and managing a few additional responsibilities like once-a-week lunch room duty, hallway supervision between periods, and occasional projects like helping to plan career day.

My initial thought when she asked was an inaudible but nevertheless deep sigh — could I handle more responsibility? I was just finishing year two in the great experiment called, “Can Kristin really teach full time without triggering autoimmune distress and ending up back in bed?”

The first year, 2020-2021, I was alone in my classroom the entire year, meeting with students only in the zoom room. The tax on my body was minor. Yes, I had to drive 30 minutes each way, and yes, I had to plan for instruction and manage the grading stack for the first time in six years, but those things seemed fairly easy without the day to day drain that the management of student bodies, behaviors, and attitudes can be.

The second year was a bit more draining. To effectively manage a classroom full of kids, I had to relearn the strategies that I’d used in the past along with some new practices that are part of our culturally responsive model. The preparation and grading stayed mostly the same, but teaching in physical proximity with students, while much more effective and far more gratifying, is exceptionally more taxing. The fact that we moved in and out of virtual instruction provided me with intermittent periods of rest that probably allowed my second year back in the classroom to remain flare-free.

I’d made it two years with very little physical consequence, how much more responsibility could I add?

“We don’t have it in our budget to hire a full-time reading interventionist, but we know the need is there. You’ve got the background in reading from your time at Lindamood-Bell, so we’d like to eliminate your elective and give you that time for reading intervention with a select group of students who need the most support,” she said.

“Well,” I responded, “the need is definitely there, I do have some experience, so let’s talk more about what this would look like.”

A couple months later I started a continuous cycle of training in a program called the Accelerated Adolescent Reading Initiative (AARI), and we selected a group of freshmen. I rearranged my classroom to accommodate the design model of the program, obtained a whole bunch of materials, and prepared to meet my students.

They’re a lively little bunch — the eight I ended up with. They went into the Covid lockdown in March of their sixth grade year, and stayed there all the way through seventh. Last year, their school — the elementary building in our network — was virtual even more than we were. They were short several staff members all year long, and often didn’t have enough adults to safely open the building. Describing our freshmen as feral might be taking it a bit far, but all freshmen since the dawn of time have lacked maturity and self-control, and this group, having missed a great deal of school-provided socialization and having endured the societal trauma that was/is Covid-19, has even the most experienced of educators shaking their heads and digging deep into their training and experience to creatively manage their erratic, impulsive, and sometimes volatile behavior.

I only have eight of the them — the freshmen I affectionately call “my babies” — and even that small group has challenged me. It could be that 75% of them came into my classroom reading at a third to fourth grade level, and the other two came in reading at a first grade level.

What would you do in high school, if you were unable to read the materials that teachers were putting in front of you? Would you be quiet and compliant? Or would you find a way to entertain yourself?

Yeah, me, too.

Anyway, when I tested each of them individually in September, each acknowledged that reading had been “hard” and admitted that learning to read better is something that they’d like to do.

I have to remind them of that — when they won’t stay off their phones, when they are talking during instructional time, or when they are distracted by someone walking by in the hallway. I have to say, “Guys, why are we in this class? What is our goal?”

They respond almost in unison, “to be better readers.”

“What do we hope to find on our retest in January?”

“Higher reading levels.”

“Exactly. And if we want that, we’ve got to be together. We’ve got to do this hard work.”

And hard work it is. I tell them we are “dusting off the cobwebs” and remembering information they likely learned long ago — the sounds that letters make, how to break words into syllables, how to sound out words in chunks, and how to recognize sight words — and that part isn’t even AARI! That’s all Lindamood-Bell!

The core of every day is reading informational text and discovering the author’s purpose, the text structures, the evidence, and the organization. I document our process on giant sticky notes as we read each book and then, together, we map out the text. Finally, each student writes a summary and we take a text-based assessment.

For emerging readers this is very difficult work, but this week we got a pay off.

After a two-day effort to reset expectations after I’d been out of the building two days the week prior, we were back on track when the principal popped in for a visit. I say these students are my babies, but our principal has actually known most of them since they were in kindergarten. She is their strongest advocate. She fought for our school to offer this class; she’s actually still fighting to hire a full-time reading interventionist. She loves these kids with her whole life. Let me show you what I mean.

When she came in quietly, my students took note, and sat up a little straighter.

I asked them, “You guys wanna show off for Ms. Few?”

“”Yeah,” they said trying not to seem excited.

I took out a stack of cards to show her how quickly they can decode multi-syllable words like intersectional, combative, and defensively. Some are quick, but when they are not, we demonstrate how we identify the vowels, how we break the word into syllables, and how we sound out the chunks. One of my students — one of the two who tested at first grade level — demonstrates how he has learned to sound out a word like ‘drawn’ when even a word like “hat” was difficult not long ago.

She watches. She says, “Wow!” and “I don’t even know that word!” when one of my students decodes a nonsense word like prediptionally. Then she puts her hand to her forehead, covering her eyes, and says, “You’re gonna make me cry.”

My feral little freshmen beamed.

“But wait,” I said, “that’s not even the program! Do you have five more minutes?”

“Yes, I do.”

And she watched while we read the last page of the book we’ve been working on for three weeks. I ask, “What is the author doing here?” and one young man — a 6’3″, 120 pound baby — looks at his book and says, “He’s taking us right back to the first page of the book.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“The words on the last page are almost the same as the ones on the first page,” he answers.

“Yes, they are,” I say. “Why is he doing that?”

The student struggles for a moment. The other kids look at the first and the last page. They think. They struggle. And then they have it.

“He’s going back to the introduction.”

“He’s repeating the claim.”

“He’s making his conclusion.”

And the principal applauds. She says, “I can’t tell you how proud I am. I want to offer this class to the whole school, because when kids struggle with reading, they begin to get into all kinds of trouble. I can see how hard you are working. Do you feel like you are learning?”

And almost in unison, they say “yes!”

It’s been a hard nine-week journey to get to this point, my friends.

Is it a drain on my body? It is.

Does it energize my spirit? Unquestionably.

Am I beaming as brightly as my students? Obviously.

Do I think I can continue to manage this load? I think I’m gonna be fine.

For you make me glad by your deeds, Lord;
    I sing for joy at what your hands have done.

Psalm 92:4

**Freshmen are the most famished humans I have ever met. If you know a teacher of freshmen, offer to provide her with some snacks to have on hand. If you’d like to feed my freshmen, email me at krathje66@gmail.com and I’ll send you my wishlist.

of Death and Resurrection

Nadia* came to my desk the other day. The other students were working on an assignment, and she had a question about something she had missed a few days prior.

“I wasn’t here the day we did this,” she said.

“Yes, I remember. You missed a few days. Is everything OK?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, “first my grandma died and we had all the arrangements for that, then my uncle died.”

“Oh my goodness! I am so sorry! That is a lot of loss all at once. I am impressed that you are working to get caught up. How can I support you?”

It’s not uncommon for us to hear about these kinds of losses. I myself lost a much-loved uncle last month, and many of us lost loved ones during Covid. However, it always shocks me when I learn of the amount of death my students have faced in their young lives.

Bianca* was sitting near my desk this week working on a college application. She was hoping it wouldn’t require a social security number because her mother had been reluctant to share hers with her when we had been getting FSA IDs, the first step in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) .

“If it’s required, I’m just gonna call my mom and tell her I have to have it,” she said.

.”Does your mom want you to go to college?” I asked.

She shook her head no.

“Hmm. What would she like you to do?”

“She wants me to keep doing hair.”

“That’s right, you do hair. Is that what she does, too?”

“No, she doesn’t work, because my dad was a firefighter who died, so she is taken care of.”

“Oh my!” I said. “When did that happen?”

She held up three fingers and said, “Three years ago.”

“I am so sorry! I had no idea.”

And while we were chatting, her mom texted her the number, and Bianca completed her application.

Working with high school seniors, I see that kind of subtle movement all the time. One week a parent refuses to let their child have her SSN, then suddenly, nonchalantly, she sends it in a text two weeks later. Parents are ready to release when they are ready to release and not a moment sooner.

And it makes sense when you know that the mother and the daughter have already experienced devastating loss.

I’ve been listening to Anderson Cooper’s new podcast, All There Is, which is his examination of his own grief through conversations with others who have also experienced loss. Cooper lost his father to heart disease at age 10, his brother to suicide when he was 21, and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, just a few years ago. As he navigates the packing up of his mother’s things, he is struck by all the unprocessed grief from the previous losses and how raw the hurt still is.

As I’m listening, I hear his voice crack as he recalls a detail, and my throat tightens, My eyes well up and my chest feels heavy. I have not experienced much physical death among my immediate family and friends, but I have definitely experienced loss — the loss of my parents’ marriage when I was seven, the loss of some dreams for our family that were taken away, some by circumstance, some by error, and some by violence, and the loss of my health and career before I was even 50.

We all experience loss. We all experience death.

Cooper posits, and I agree, that we don’t make enough space for discussions of our losses and the hurts that we carry with us. Instead, we try to pack them up, put them away, and function in a way that seems “normal” when we will never feel “normal” again.

In one of his interviews, Cooper speaks with Stephen Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers in an airplane crash when he was 10. Colbert says it was the worst thing that happened in his life, but he has grown to be grateful for it — not the deaths, of course, but the opening it created in him that has allowed him to see the devastations in the lives of others and the ability to have compassion for them.

I resonate with that. For many years I have said that while my parents’ divorce was — for a long time — the biggest blow to my life, it grew in me an understanding of brokenness that prepared me to marry a man who had been divorced. Having stepparents prepared me to be a stepparent. Having experienced trauma and devastation in our own family has opened a chasm in my heart that has space for the brokenness I see in my students and my friends.

Because I have written about loss, and because my husband and I have explored our losses in depth with our therapists, with each other, and most extensively with a small group of friends who we meet with every week, we were prepared last spring and again this fall, to share our story with a small group of others like us who are in the midst of devastation and who are looking for shreds of hope. We believe, like Anderson Cooper, that we don’t talk about our losses — especially not in polite company, and even less in the church. Especially if those losses involve estrangement, divorce, sexual assault, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling, or crime.

So when we stand in front of a group of church folk (last spring) or church workers (this fall) and tell our story, we do it as educators. We model — this is how you can be vulnerable and tell your story. We provide safety — you are in a room full of others who also have a story. We give space — take a chance, and share a piece of your story with someone next to you.

And they do.

And the tears flow.

Strangers touch hands and are no longer strangers.

It looks like resurrection.

Theologian and writer Jeff Chu asked in his opening talk at the 2022 Evolving Faith Conference** last weekend, “What does resurrection matter except to those have tasted death?”

What does new life matter, until you thought that life was gone forever?

When you have sobbed on your pillow knowing your family will never be whole again and then you see a connection, you receive an invitation, you embrace someone who has felt the rending of the flesh as deeply as you have and somehow what was dead seems to breathe new life,

Resurrection isn’t witnessed in isolation, is it? I find I see it most in community — in the sharing of stories, of tears, of understanding. I see it in friendships that walk through the valley of the shadow of death together long enough to get to the other side.

This fall I’ve had a student in my class, Monique*. Her attendance has been intermittent — she’s pregnant. When she comes, I greet her without judgment because I don’t know her story.; I only know that she has one. For the past week or more her seat has been empty. She didn’t appear to be full-term, so I didn’t expect that she had had the baby. I expected her to walk back in any morning, just as she had been doing all fall. But yesterday, I was standing in the office when her sister, a recent graduate, walked in. We chatted, and she mentioned that Monique had had the baby, but that the baby “didn’t make it”.

What happens to a seventeen year old heart when it has carried a life, moved through labor, and then experienced such a devastating loss?

I have no idea, but I am hoping to hear Monique’s story, and I am longing for her to experience resurrection.

[He] comforts us in all our trouble so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”

2 Corinthians 1:4

*All student names have been changed, of course.

**Although the Evolving Faith conference is over, you can still register and watch the entire event, which was virtual and recorded.

And, we’re off!

We just finished the second week of school and let me just say: All. Cylinders. Are. Firing.

From Monday morning at 8am to Friday afternoon at 4, the weeks are gonna be full, full, full.

Let me give you a glimpse. Mondays and Thursdays I spend three blocks — that’s 300 minutes –with seniors and one half block (50 minutes) with a small group of freshmen. From first thing in the morning until the very end of the day, all systems are go.

This past week, my seniors learned how we will respect one another in the classroom, explored my syllabus, and took the semester pre-test to show me what they already know. We also reviewed their SAT scores and had what I call “Real Talk” about where we are and where we are trying to be by the end of the school year. My students (and most students of color in urban areas across the country) have been broadly underserved educationally and their SAT scores show it. They’ve been underserved, and then they’ve spent their whole high school experience dealing with a pandemic. That’s right, my seniors went into lock-down as freshmen, spent their entire sophomore year “learning” remotely, came back for a repeatedly disrupted junior year, and are now trying to fully re-engage and prepare for college.

I need them to know from day one that we’ve got work to do. I don’t mince words. I say, “Look, we’ve got to look reality straight in the face if we want to accomplish our goals this year.”

“Sheesh, Mrs. Rathje, I feel like giving up right now.”

“Oh, we’re not giving up. Let’s pause for five minutes to catch our breath, but then we are right back to it.”

They took a 5 minute break, I called them back, and we were rolling — no time to waste here.

My freshmen — sweet babies — were hand selected because although most every freshmen in our building is trailing behind Common Core benchmarks, this little group of mine is the furthest behind of everyone. I spent the past couple weeks getting to know them, assessing their reading skills, and beginning to engage them in the arduous task of finding and filling in gaps in their literacy learning, getting their buy-in, establishing norms for how we behave in Mrs. Rathje’s class, and holding them to my expectations.

This little class, which meets every day from noon to 12:50 (pray for me!), has been 1 part “real talk”, 2 parts “you can do this!’, 1 parts “this is what we are doing”, and 1 part “this is what we are definitely NOT doing”. They are immature and a bit squirrely, but for whatever reason, they respect me and they know I am not playing. They lean in — they want to learn. And guys, the work we are doing is not easy or fun — I’m making them learn/remember very basic phonetic rules — we’re counting vowels, breaking words into syllables, clapping them out, and even playing games with flashcards.

Yesterday, at the end of our class, when the white board was covered with our notes — the words we broke up and the outline of the book we are reading, one of my students asked, “Mrs. Rathje, do you leave this on your board for your other students to see?”

“No, I do not. I will cover it all up. They won’t even know it’s here. I’ve got you.”

And the whole group collectively sighed.

They couldn’t have a bunch of seniors knowing that they are reading about what animals do in the winter, that they were discovering what the author’s claim was, that they had to break the word hi-ber-nate into chunks, or that we’re all learning the word adapTAtion.

And that’s just Monday and Thursday.

On Tuesday and Friday I meet with my freshmen, of course, but I also have about 300 minutes on each of those days for other tasks. Last week I filled those minutes by writing lesson plans, completing a reading assessment with a freshman, meeting with my instructional coach, returning emails, calling parents, supporting my student teacher, creating materials, grading assignments, and recording grades. The time fills up fast, and I often find myself scrambling to finish “one last thing” before I walk to my car at the end of the day.

I haven’t mentioned Wednesday yet. Wednesdays are typically what we call a “sprint” schedule. We see all seven of our classes in one day on a shortened schedule –typically less than 40 minutes per period with one additional period for social-emotional learning. This past Wednesday was an exception. All of our ninth through eleventh graders had to take the Academic Approach assessment which is a pre-test for the PSAT and SAT. It is computer-based and takes 3-4 hours. Because the seniors didn’t have to take this test, we decided to a) get them out of the building to limit distractions for the underclassmen, and b) get them on their first college visit.

Students filling out applications at EMU

Wednesday morning I found myself on a bus with 50 seniors and four other chaperones riding to Eastern Michigan University. Our students spent a few hours learning about EMU’s programs and touring the campus. Then, we boarded the bus and headed back to Detroit where we dismissed the students and I returned to preparing for the long day of instruction I would have on Thursday.

And before I new it, I was gathering my things on Friday afternoon, loading them into my car, and making the trek home. The week had flown by.

Not only were my days full, I had commitments at night, too.

On Monday, I left work to drive almost an hour to Chelsea where I have physical therapy about once a month. (I do still have to practice self-care if I want to keep pushing on the gas so steadily with my students.)

Tuesday was my first virtual meeting for the educational policy fellowship I am participating in this year where I learned that my working group will focus on policies that impact students’ post-secondary plans.

By Wednesday, I was out of gas. My husband was out of town, so I showered, crawled into jammies, and ate popcorn and garden vegetables while watching Arrested Development. Sometimes a girl’s just got to shut down.

Thursday night was for mental health therapy, and Friday night was for eating curry, watching Netflix, and nodding off to The Great British Baking Show — good old faithful wholesomeness to end the week.

And now? Now I continue to rest and refuel for the weekend because by the time you are reading this, we’ll be back in motion.

Teaching is hard work, but it’s good work. Teachers watch transformation happen right before their eyes — we set the climate and expectations, and because our experience tells us it’s going to happen, we wait and watch in expectation. It won’t be long before my little baby freshmen are reading like professionals telling me the author’s claim and supporting themselves with evidence or before my seniors are texting me from college saying, “Mrs. Rathje, I’m here! I’m setting up my dorm right now!”

We won’t get there by idling or pulling into the garage. No. The only way we’ll get there is by the everyday progress that happens by continually firing on all cylinders.

He who began a good work will complete it.

Philippians 1:6

Gem of the Week: Sam*

*Perhaps the Gem of the Week will turn into a series. Sam is a fictional name for a real person.

Click the arrow to listen.

I “met” Sam last year after seeing him regularly walking or running in the hallways during class periods. He’s what I affectionately call a “hall walker”. A hall walker is not a student who regularly asks for a pass to go to the bathroom or even one who is routinely late. No, a hall walker is a student who appears to spend at least as much class time in the hallway or the office as she does in her actual classroom. Hall walkers are clever; they have somehow managed to convince a number of authority figures at a variety of different times that they have legitimate reasons for being in the hallway.

I was aware of Sam, who last year was a junior, even though he was not assigned to my classroom. I didn’t know his name, but I was familiar with his face and the red jacket that he wore almost every day. Because my student rosters are mostly full of seniors, it is the exceptional underclassman who falls onto my radar, and when I say ‘exceptional’ in this context, it is not always a compliment.

One day, last winter, I was in the hallway on my lunch period, and I saw Sam, red jacket and all, flying down the hallway, away from a staff member who was asking him to come back. I overheard Sam call the staff member an expletive right before he slid back into his classroom.

I took note.

I did not track him down in the moment because he was finally where he was supposed to be, but I logged the interaction and determined to find out the student’s name.

It wasn’t the last time I saw such an interaction. Sam seemed to have a default emotion of “pissed”, as several of our students do, and for good reason. I didn’t know the whole story, but I knew there probably was one.

On one occasion, I happened to be walking down the hall side by side with Sam, and I spoke to him, calling him by name.

“You know my name?” he said.

“Yes. Do you know mine?” I asked.

“No.”

“I’m Mrs. Rathje. What grade are you in?”

“I’m a junior. How do you know my name?”

“Well, usually, if you’re not a senior and I know your name, it’s probably because you’re a hall walker.”

“Whatchu mean? I’m not a hall walker.”

“Well, I see you in the hall a lot.”

“That’s not me.”

“I’m pretty sure it is.”

And then we were no longer walking together.

But I saw him often throughout last school year. He was usually not where he was supposed to be, and he was usually running his mouth, stirring up negativity, as one does. I made a point to speak to him when I had opportunity.

“How’s it going, Sam?”

I didn’t always get a response.

But then, on the night of the Senior Pinning last May, when all of our seniors come dressed to the nines, and their parents stand next to them and “pin” them to show that they are nearly there, I walked into the hall, to find Sam, dressed in his red jacket, hovering near the registration table.

“Hey, Sam,” I said.

“Hey,” he said, but he looked different. He looked timid. He hovered near one of the senior sponsors, and waited for her instructions. He carried in boxes, he ran errands, he watched everything.

Our seniors strutted in, suited and heeled, hair freshly done, and shoes at high polish.

Sam stood to the side and watched, eyes wide, mouth closed.

A couple weeks later, he stepped into my room for the first time. I was between classes, and I looked up.

“Hey, Sam, what’s up?”

“Is your class hard?” he asked.

“No, I wouldn’t say it’s hard. Why?”

“Everyone says it’s hard.”

“I can’t imagine why. Everything is spelled out. You just have to follow directions. It’s no big deal. You worried?”

“Yeah. I’m a little worried.”

“You’ll be fine. You’re pretty bright — you have to be — you’re a hall walker.”

“I’m not hall walker.”

“Ok.”

The summer passed, and a couple weeks ago, we had our back to school open house. Who did I see first? Sam.

“Hey, Sam! Welcome back,” I said. “I hear you are in the dual-credit class that is going to Lawrence Tech twice a week. That’s amazing!”

“I ain’t doing that.”

“Well, you’re on the roster. It’s quite a privilege to go to college during high school. Only the brightest seniors get to go.”

“I ain’t doing it.”

“Ok.”

On the second day of class last week, I saw Sam again. He was visibly upset. He seriously did not want to go to Lawrence Tech twice a week. He didn’t think he would like it, and he didn’t want to be stuck there for his whole senior year if he hated it.

Two teachers were already speaking to him, but he was not budging.

“I ain’t going. I don’t want to go to college.”

“Sam,” I said, “you’re deciding that you don’t like it before you even get there. I can promise you, it’s a whole new world out there. You have to at least give it a try. You’re going to get to leave school twice a week — not everybody gets to do that. You were hand picked because we know you can do it.”

“I don’t want to do it.”

“Just go. Give it a chance.”

Other teachers continued the conversation, but he seemed resolute. He was not planning to go.

On Friday, I saw the small group of seniors — just 12 of them — as they got ready to get on the bus to go to their orientation. I looked at the group and said, “Have fun, guys! You’re gonna love it!” They were all clumped together.

I didn’t see Sam.

A few hours later, I found myself walking down the hall, in step with — Sam.

“Mrs. Rathje, I got my college ID!” he said smiling as he pulled it out of his pocket.

“You went! I knew you would love it!”

“Well, we ain’t been to the class yet. I probably ain’t going to like it.”

“But you got an ID! You’re on your way! I’m telling you — you’re going to love it. It’s a whole different world out there. I’m proud of you for going.”

“Thanks.”

Yup. Sam the hall walker said “thanks”.

He’s in my first hour class along with all the other kids who are going to Lawrence Tech twice a week. He sits in the back because that’s where he feels comfortable. He can’t see the board because he needs glasses, so he takes out his phone, takes a picture of my screen and blows it up to read it.

I walk near him, tap him on the shoulder and say, “Great use of your phone, Sam. Way to get what you need.”

We’ve only finished one week, and we’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do between now and June, but I do believe I’m witnessing a transformation in progress.

I [can] see the goodness of God in the land of the living.

Psalm 27:13 Rathje Revised Version

Rest and Return

Click the arrow to listen to this post.

The summer is winding down and I (along with teachers across the country) am starting to move toward the classroom.

Feeling truly depleted at the end of last school year, I spent the first two weeks of summer break at home. I gardened, slept late, wrote a teeny little bit, read, walked, and cooked.

And then, when I was somewhat revived, my husband and I boarded a jet and headed west. We alit in the land of palms and headed to wide expanses of beach, spread out matching beach towels. and spent hours reading, sleeping, chatting, and staring in awe at the waves and the sky. We wandered inland and wondered at the mountains and the forests then returned to the beaches — some tame and populated, some rugged and bare.

We ate well, slept long, and walked for miles and miles.

We breathed deeply. We laughed. We restored.

When our vacation was over, he reported back to his responsibilities, and I returned to rest.

This past week, I found my way back to my desk and started to consider and prepare for the roles I will carry this fall. It will be my third year at my current school after a long season of physical and mental recovery, and it will be the most challenging yet.

Earlier in this blog, I have elaborated on the fact that many years of pushing too hard and failing to take care of myself or process any emotion had sidelined me from the classroom for several years. In 2020, I felt called back, and because we were in the midst of a pandemic, I had the privilege of easing back in through a year of teaching virtually followed by a year of some in-person and some virtual learning. I was able to get my feet under me with mostly no physical or emotional consequences until the very end of last year when my body started waving warning flags.

Those flags reminded me to fully lean into my summer, and I have. I have put puzzles together, crocheted, and binge-watched. I have rested fully, and now as reminders of all I have committed to start pinging on my phone, I am both exhilarated and anxious. I have added some new roles, and I am wondering if I will truly be able to manage it all.

I know for sure that I can manage the first responsibility, which is the one I have had from my first day at Detroit Leadership Academy. I am the senior ELA teacher, focusing on building skills that will enable my students to experience success after graduation. Our research projects focus on career and college. Our writing includes college essays and resumes. We practice academic reading, writing, discussion, and presenting. The goal is that our students will have the opportunity to choose — college, career, military, or trade school. I love this role — in many ways it is an extension of what I did in my previous classroom position, and I am thankful that I am able to carry those skills forward to support another community of students.

I also know that I can handle the second responsibility which I have had for a year now. I am our school’s Master Teacher. We have instructional coaches in our building who work directly with teachers to improve instructional practices; that is not my role. My role is more to be an exemplar and an encourager. Teachers can pop in my room and ask a question, check out my white board or room arrangement, complain about a policy, vent about a student, or ask for a snack. I love this role, too. Because I’ve been a teacher and a mom across four decades, I have seen some stuff, and not much surprises me. I can typically remain calm and objective, which is what less-experienced teachers often need.

The above two roles are familiar and natural to me, but like many teachers throughout their career, I have been offered some additional responsibilities that will absolutely stretch me in the coming year.

The first of these is one I volunteered for. I will be participating in a year-long educational fellowship wherein I will work with teachers across the state to examine educational policies and practices, do research, and work with lawmakers and constituents to enact change. I am very excited about this opportunity, which will give voice to my passion for educational equity, the key focus of this fellowship.

The second new role is to be our school’s reading interventionist and to bring a new reading program to the building. I will have one period a day with 10 freshmen who have demonstrated reading skills 2-3 years (or more) below grade level. I am being trained this week in strategies that have been demonstrated to decrease/eliminate that gap in 20 weeks of daily instruction. I am fully behind this initiative. In fact, I asked for a reading interventionist after seeing evidence of weak reading among my students. Because of my Lindamood-Bell experience, I am a solid choice (at least initially) for this role, and I know I will love watching my students develop their reading skills.

Even though I am passionate about each of these roles, they are adding up! And I haven’t even told you the last one.

After I had already accepted all of the above positions, and had begun to wrap my mind around what they would each entail, I was approached by our director of human resources and asked if I would take on an uncertified colleague as a student teacher.

Let me pause for effect, because that is what I literally did when I got the call. I sat with the phone to my ear, breathing silently.

I’ve mentioned before that 2/3 of the teachers in our building are uncertified — most, like this friend, are working toward certification. Many, like this friend, will eventually need to do student teaching. If she can’t do the student teaching in our building, she will find a different school to accommodate her, and then we would be down one more teacher.

I know it is not my responsibility, but I am the teacher in the building with the appropriate certification to supervise her, and I have had student teachers before. I believe we will work well together and that the experience will be successful, but it is a large responsibility on top of an already full load.

This is not uncommon for teachers. In fact, I am not unique at all. Teachers manage their classrooms, provide excellent instruction, sit on committees, volunteer for study groups, and support their colleagues. They coach, they work second (or third) jobs, and they also have lives away from school that include myriad challenges and responsibilities.

It’s not uncommon, yet although I am excited to get started in each of these roles, I do have some anxiety. This is the most I have committed to since the 2013-2014 school year — the year that I requested a reduced load because I was suffering with pain, extreme fatigue, and myriad other health issues, the year before I left my classroom for what I thought was the last time.

I’m not the same person I was then. I have learned how to care for my body. I am learning strategies for managing my emotions. I don’t have teenagers at home. I no longer have pets to care for. And still, it’s going to be a lot.

So here I am recommitting to my best practices — I will continue to write, to do yoga, to walk, to rest, to puzzle, to crochet, to read, and to meet with our small group. I will go to my physical therapy, chiropractic, and (now) acupuncture appointments. I will eat the foods that make me feel well and avoid those that don’t. I will limit other commitments.

More importantly, I will pray, and I will trust that God has provided me this next chapter and all the opportunities in it and that He will carry me through it all so that I can be present and fully engaged with those who are counting on me, because they truly are counting on me.

And really they are counting on the One who lives in me — the One who sees each student, each teacher, each parent, the One who knows each of our names, the One who is faithful, the One who is answering before we even use our breath to ask, the only One who can really be counted on

I may continue to feel anxious, but when I do, I will try to remember that He’s got me and all of my responsibilities in the palm of His hand.

The One who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

I Thessalonians 5:24

A More Pro-Life Vision

Click the arrow to listen

One week ago, the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, thereby taking away the right to abortion.

So now what? Will the number of abortions performed in this country go down?

History tells us no. However, I can envision a world where it might possibly happen, but much more would be required of Americans than merely one overturned decision.

I can see it now, a woman takes a pregnancy test, which she obtained at no charge from her local pharmacy, and discovers she’s pregnant. She rushes home to tell her family, and they immediately throw a party. They are thrilled! They’ve won the lottery — a new life is coming into the world. The woman doesn’t experience embarrassment or shame. She was fully aware that she might become pregnant since sex was regularly discussed in her home, in her church, and in her school — and not as something to be avoided, but as a natural function of the body, intended for mutual enjoyment, mutual expression of love, and for procreation. She had access to free contraception until she was ready to build a family.

And now that she is ready, everyone celebrates — a baby is coming!

The next move is to make an appointment with an OB/GYN to get the kind of prenatal care only found in the wealthiest country in the world. Regardless of her income, her care costs her nothing — not the immediate supply of prenatal vitamins, not the prenatal testing including bloodwork and imaging, not the monthly wellness checks by her doctor. In fact, even the labor and delivery would come at no cost to this expectant mother. This is very different than in days before the overturn of Roe in June of 2022 when the cost of a typical birth averaged $6,940 — that’s with medical insurance, it would’ve been $13,024 without.

Throughout the pregnancy, the parents participate in free parenting courses in which they learn the developmental stages, a wide variety of safety guidelines, proper nutrition, and other useful information. When they finally arrive in labor and delivery, despite their age, race, or socio-economic status, they are greeted with smiles of congratulation and a room full of taxpayer-sponsored supplies — a year’s worth of diapers, a top-of-the-line car seat, a steady supply of formula (if they so choose), and baby’s first sleeper and blanket. All babies are offered a solid start. All babies are well-fed, protected, and provided for.

Gone are the days when young families took home, along with their newborn, a huge burden of hospital debt and a long shopping list of expensive supplies. Since the country determined to be fully pro-life, it has put its money toward this priority. No family here will scramble to provide necessities that ensure the healthy development of their child.

In fact, the country is so pro-life, that it has established a practice of paid parental leave for both the mother and the father — just twelve weeks each, not as much as Sweden (68 weeks combined) or Japan (52 weeks each), but still a chance to bond as a family and adapt to a new way of life that includes providing for and loving this new child. So, the new mother and father take the first two weeks together with their baby, the mother takes the next ten weeks, then the father takes the following ten weeks. In this way, their newborn receives at-home loving care from its parents for the first twenty-two weeks of life, and his parents continue receiving their pay the whole time. It makes sense in a country that is pro-life to guarantee this strong start for each new life.

Gone are the days, before the overturn of Roe in June of 2022, when parents had to choose between getting their paychecks and staying at home with their newborns. Gone are the tearful goodbyes of new parents leaving their babies before they were ready. These first months are essential for bonding and emotional health, so it has been prioritized.

Since the health and well-being of children is paramount, in fact, child care is one of the most esteemed professions. Charged with the privilege of caring for these precious lives, child care providers are well-paid, highly-trained professionals who receive the new parents’ child with honor. They greet the parents at the door, celebrate the new life, hear the parents’ concerns, and dutifully and lovingly care for that child when the parents finally do return to work. This child care, of course, is fully funded by the same government that supports all pregnancies to reach full term and result in healthy births. Gone are the days when parents forked over 20% of their income (an average of $14, 117 post pandemic) or resorted to less than ideal childcare situations. In this truly pro-life society, all children get the best quality care. In fact, if the parents decide that one of them will stay home with their children, they can receive a tax credit in the amount of what they would have spent on child care. Each family has the opportunity to decide what is best for their child.

School teachers, too, are elevated. They, after all, spend the most time with children of anyone, providing high quality instruction, individualized, of course, to each child’s needs, strengths, and interests, Schools are universally outfitted with the best technology, state-of-the art facilities, up-to-date resources, nutritional and delicious foods for both breakfast and lunch, and unlimited opportunities to explore sports, the arts, science, math, and technology. Children, regardless of their background, race, or economic status, receive the best education available — they are, of course, the future of this great nation and worthy of our best investments.

Gone are the days of stigma associated with people who receive public assistance since everyone receives public assistance. Gone are the days of stigma associated with pregnancy — the days where unwed women who become pregnant were deemed promiscuous for having been “knocked up” and should be ashamed of themselves, especially if they were young, or Black, or poor. Gone are the days when these women were pushed into hiding, believing they had to “get rid of” the pregnancy before people found out — particularly if they were Christian and had been pressured to “stay pure”.

Gone would be sexual assault, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t a pro-life society put every resource imaginable into ensuring the safety of all women and children rather than turning a blind eye to the blatant and subliminal messaging that has historically taught women that they are objects of desire rather than partners in pleasure? In this post-Roe world, where we value all life, would we not dramatically put a stop to any behaviors that devalued or objectified any life?

Gone would be racism, too, would it not? Wouldn’t Black mothers and white mothers receive the same resources? Wouldn’t Latinx and Asian families receive the same medical care? Wouldn’t all children be highly valued, provided for, well-educated, and protected in their communities?

Limiting access to abortions does not, on its own, make a society pro-life. The number of abortions in this country is a symptom, not the cause, of widespread malignancy. The core of the problem is a society that pretends to be good, right, just, even “Christian” while quietly (and sometimes loudly) allowing — even perpetuating — harmful behaviors that are in no way pro-life.

Our society, at its core, is pro-power, pro-money, pro-dominance. If we truly want to be pro-life, we’re going to have to re-assess our priorities and reallocate our funds to match those newly clarified values.

It is possible to reduce the number of abortions performed in this country, but I don’t see it happening simply through the overturn of Roe. I suspect that criminalizing abortion will merely push it into hiding.

True change will not be born out of legislation alone but out of the shifting of paradigms, behaviors, and systems. Are we ready for that kind of transformation?

Search me, God, and know my heart;

    test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,

    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139: 23-24

Do Something: Update 2022

On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, an 18 year old carried an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle into a school and fired shots killing 19 children and their teacher before being shot and killed by police. This was the most deadly school shooting since Sandy Hook almost 10 years ago. Following is an update of a post I wrote in response to one of countless other shootings.

On Sunday August 4, 2019, Ohio Governor Mark DeWine addressed a crowd on the same day that a mass shooting killed 9 and left 27 injured. He had just barely begun to speak when someone shouted, “Do something!” Before long, many had joined the chant, “Do something! Do something!”

DeWine was moved to action. Within 48 hours, he had proposed several changes to gun laws including a red flag law and universal background checks; his initiatives also included measures related to education and mental health. He announced his actions saying, “We must do something.”

Now that is what I’m talking about.

The people in that Dayton crowd, along with many others, are done with hand-wringing and weeping. They are tired of thoughts and prayers. They have seen enough bloodshed, and they are demanding change.

“Do Something!” they yell, and I find myself joining their cries, “Do Something! Do Something!”

Last week I wrote about prayer — the lifting up of our burdens to the One who is able to change everything.

I’m not taking that back.

Pray. Keep praying. Never stop praying.

But here’s the thing, we can pray with our breath at the same time that we are doing something.

Yes, we can have dedicated times of solitude, where we go in our prayer closets or lie on our beds and cry out to God. Do that! However, you can also put your prayers into motion. Much like you talk to a friend as you go for a run, drive down the road, or cook a meal, you can continue in conversation with God as you do something about the things you are lifting up to Him.

You can cry, “Do you see this, God? We’ve had 213 mass shootings already in 2022! We’ve had 27 school shootings this year!” while you are demonstrating in front of a governor, or writing a letter to your congressman, or donating money for mental health resources in your community or educational services at your local school or making a choice to vote only for leaders who support and will enact common sense gun legislation.

You can say, “Lord, I’m really worried about the environment, I beg for your mercy and the renewal of our planet,” as you ride on public transportation, use cloth shopping bags, or carry your compost outside.

You can sob, “I’m begging you to heal my broken relationships,” as you encourage the people you encounter every day, as you go to therapy to process your regrets and learn healthier strategies, as you do your best to rebuild relationships.

We can be people of prayer and still do something. We can do more than put on sackcloth and ashes, grieving the loss of a life we once knew. We can speak out and fight for change. We can defend the defenseless, call out the unjust, and offer solutions.

We can engage in conversations about politics — ask the hard questions, admit that we don’t have all the answers, and even change our minds.

We can volunteer in our communities — working with the homeless, tutoring public school kids, or leading clean-up projects.

We can support the people in our neighborhoods — being available, providing resources, mowing lawns, or dropping off flowers or meals.

I don’t know what your gifts are, but even while you are praying, you can do something.

Why should you? Why should you expend any effort? What difference is one person going to make any way? The problems we face are big — almost insurmountable — rampant gun violence, a drug epidemic, a decaying environment, a world-wide sex trafficking network, an immigration crisis, our dysfunctional families, and our own broken hearts.

We could crawl into our beds, cover our heads with blankets, and weep as we cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, come.”

But, friends, while we wait for His return, He is inviting us to do something.

I am not suggesting that you strap on your gear and go about butt-kicking and name-taking. Instead, I am suggesting a mindful, prayerful approach to action.

You and I can consider the items we are continually lifting up in prayer: a family member with health concerns, a strained relationship, personal debt, the environment, racial disparity, and violence against women, for example.

As we lift up these concerns, we can be asking, “What difference can I make? What is one thing that I can do? How can I help?” And we will begin to see opportunities: we can make a phone call to encourage that family member, we can respect the requests of the one who just needs some time and space, we can pay off some bills and move toward financial freedom, we can decide to buy fewer products packaged with plastic, we can vote for proposals that promote equity, or volunteer at a local women’s shelter. We can do something.

We don’t have to do everything, but we can each do something.

Imagine the impact of 10 people consistently choosing to do one thing toward improving a neighborhood, of 100 people dedicated to just one action to decrease homelessness, of 1000 people committed to improving the lives of children living in poverty.

You could be the start of transformational change, if you just decide that you are going to do something.

For the past few years I’ve been looking for something big to do. As I’ve been sorting through the broken pieces of my life, I keep trying to put them together into one redemptive action that will somehow turn my tears into wine. I want to end poverty and violence and heal all the broken hearts. I want a project, a mission, a cause.

And as I lift the broken pieces up in prayer, I hear a still small voice saying, “you don’t need to single-handedly change the world, Kristin, but you can do something. How about you just start with one small thing?”

But there is so much that needs changing!

“Behold, I am making all things new.”

I want to help!

“Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly.”

Ok. I hear you. I’ll start small, but I’ll dream big.

I’m praying that others will pick their one small thing and join me.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”

Colossians 3:23

**This was written in 2019, before God answered my prayer by placing me in my current classroom and giving me a place where I can do one small thing every day.